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Ehrlich is sought, but stays neutral, as he watches 'buddies' in GOP governor's race

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For Republican candidates for governor, there's simply not enough Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to go around. He's like the father in a large family whose kids compete for his attention but can't manage to get Dad all to themselves.

Ehrlich, who in 2002 became Maryland's first Republican governor in three decades and is now promoting a book, has long been telling the candidates he won't choose a favorite in Tuesday's primary. That hasn't stopped them from invoking his name, likening themselves to him, seeking his fundraising assistance and, in at least one case, using his beaming face in a campaign commercial.

Ehrlich, 56, is coveted because he once found a formula for statewide electoral success in this heavily Democratic state and remains a favorite of GOP voters. He says he won't endorse because "they're all buddies of mine, you know?"

But watching the occasionally acrimonious GOP primary campaign unfold has been trying, he said.

"It's great because they're all friends and they're all accomplished," Ehrlich said. "It's horrible because you don't want to see friends fight."

Over the last several months, Ehrlich has been the main draw at fundraisers for three of the candidates — state Del. Ron George of Annapolis, businessman Larry Hogan (who held a post in Ehrlich's administration), and Harford County Executive David R. Craig.

Ehrlich seems careful to compliment each in equal doses. He poses for photographs at the events and signs copies of his new book. He said he didn't do a fundraiser for the fourth GOP candidate, Charles County business executive Charles Lollar, only because Lollar didn't ask.

The GOP nominee will face Tuesday's Democratic winner in the Nov. 4 general election.

It was hard to miss Ehrlich in a recent television ad for George. Ehrlich is shown in a photograph with one arm around George and the other arm extended into the air like a victorious boxer.

"He's such a close personal friend, why wouldn't I include him?" George said in an interview. "I don't think anybody questions for a moment that he and I are on a similar page."

The former governor and four-term congressman divides his time among his law practice at the Washington firm of King & Spalding, his book promotions and his family. The former Princeton football player said his children — not the brood of Republican candidates, but his actual sons, ages 14 and 10 — are a priority. His noticeable tan is the result not of golf outings, he said, but of his frequent attendance at his boys' athletic events.

Even after losing his 2006 re-election bid to Democrat Martin O'Malley — and losing again to O'Malley in 2010 — Ehrlich is sought after by state Republicans in the way that Ronald Reagan was in demand by national Republicans after leaving the presidency in 1989.

Ehrlich "still has tremendous currency in the Republican Party," said pollster Steve Raabe, president of OpinionWorks of Annapolis. "He represents electoral success. He's in a class all by himself in the Republican Party."

There is a twist to the fundraisers at which Ehrlich appears. He also signs and sells copies of the book, "America: Hope for Change," in which he examines issues confronting the nation. The book is in its second hardcover printing, Ehrlich spokesman Greg Massoni said.

George said his Ehrlich event, held in Glen Burnie in April, featured a $240 regular ticket or a VIP ticket for $320. "It was very nice of him," George said. "People could have a picture with Bob and — for the VIPs — we included signed copies in the price." He said the event raised about $29,000.

At a book-signing party this week at a supporter's home in Rockville, Ehrlich mingled casually with about two dozen guests, some of whom called him "Bobby." He spent part of the evening seated at the dining room table signing books. The event benefited the Montgomery County Republican Party.

"I'm sure many, many candidates come for his advice, for the blessing," said Diana Waterman, the state Republican Party chairwoman. "He's far from done" in politics, she said.

Asked if Ehrlich might one day seek elective office again, Massoni replied: "We never say never."

Ehrlich has deep connections to the GOP candidates. He said he has known Hogan's family since working on the unsuccessful U.S. Senate race of the candidate's father, Lawrence Hogan Sr., in 1982.

George, Ehrlich said, "is my jeweler." And "David [Craig] has been in politics for 30 years. I've worked in many campaigns with him."

Appearing with candidates at book events is "a way to help them, obviously," Ehrlich said. And, he said, "my publisher is happy."

Given that Hogan was Ehrlich's appointments secretary, Craig's campaign argues that Ehrlich's decision not to endorse is significant. People expected him to endorse Hogan, said Brandon Wright, Craig's deputy campaign manager. "The fact that Ehrlich hasn't endorsed him, it's an endorsement for us," Wright said.

"That's just silly," Hogan spokesman Adam Dubitsky said in reply. "The governor's neutrality is an indication of the governor's neutrality. Larry from day one hasn't been focused on getting endorsements. Larry is running his own race."

Ehrlich, who also writes a column for The Baltimore Sun, could be valuable to the eventual nominee as a fundraiser. The 2006 O'Malley-Ehrlich contest was the most expensive campaign for governor ever waged in Maryland.

But while Ehrlich can raise money, Raabe said the former governor's appeal is not universal. "Voters are generally satisfied with the general direction of the state," the pollster said. "There's no message that going back to the Ehrlich years is going to be helpful. This year, [Republicans] need a compelling, alternative vision."

Ehrlich, when asked what he might do for the nominee in the general election, replied: "'I'm a soldier."

Said Massoni: "He's not going to be a full-time campaigner, but he'll do what he can to be beneficial."

jebarker@baltsun.com

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